Public clamor for more jeepneys met with eased distancing instead

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Public clamor for more jeepneys met with eased distancing instead
Some PUVs still ferry some stranded commuters along EDSA in Cubao, Quezon City on Tuesday midnight following the suspension of all public transport in line with the strict implementation of the enhanced community quarantine.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — The transportation department found itself on the defensive anew after easing social distancing controls in public transport starting Monday, fanning concerns the decision risks commuters catching the deadly coronavirus and cases surging anew.

In a text message to Philstar.com, Transport Assistant Secretary Goddes Libiran said allowing more passengers per vehicle is a response to a “clamor of the people that the public transport be opened up.” “The policy aims to help in the opening and recovery of the economy,” she said.

“The decision to optimize capacity is the decision of the IATF (interagency task force on emerging infectious diseases). The policy was approved on Sept. 7, 2020. Any concerns should be directed to the collegial body,” Libiran explained.

Indeed, there exists a public clamor for further reopening of public transport, but the calls were to allow more vehicles to ply the roads and not to loosen up existing social distancing protocols recommended no less by World Health Organization. In a statement, MoveAsOne Coalition, a commuter group, said the government misunderstood commuter calls.

“Physical distancing remains the key to safely moving large numbers of people again as the economy reopens. Easing the physical distancing rules to less than 1 meter goes against the current scientific advice to control the spread of the coronavirus,” it said.

“We recommend that more jeepneys be allowed to operate as soon as possible,” it added.

Piston, a transport group, also called for more of its members to be allowed to go back to work. “In reality, the distance among passengers inside jeepneys is already less than 1 meter but this is only because the number of jeepneys plying our roads is insufficient and are even operating at half capacity,” Mody Floranda, president, said in a text message.

The shift to a more relax transport protocols while riding public utility jeepneys, tricycles and buses involved reducing distancing between passengers. From the original 1 meter gap, the separation would now be 0.75 meter, which would then be reduced to 0.5 meter by Sept. 28 and to 0.3 meter two after that.

Interestingly, while the controversial policy was said to be approved by IATF, its announcement over the weekend was initially taken back after the health department sought clarification from the transport agency over its plans. The Department of Health is the chair of IATF.

But Libiran stressed that while the policy was being discussed, IATF even wanted to go big on easing straight to a minimum distance of 0.5 meters among passengers. She claimed it was Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade who thought it was prudent to start lessening to 0.75 meters. 

Amid health risks, more passengers were eventually allowed on board public transport on Monday. At the Light Rail Transit line 1 running from Recto in Manila to Roosevelt in Quezon City, each trainset will now be able to carry 204 passengers from the original 155 when the lockdowns were eased last June due to looser prohibitions.

In a separate statement, the train management assured commuters their safety will be of utmost importance. “Reducing the physical distance doesn’t mean we will be complacent or we will take things for granted,” said Juan Alfonso, president and chief executive of Light Rail Manila, the line operator.

“Rail actually offers the fastest journey, so it is still safer since there is less time for possible exposure. Higher transport supply is also a smart way to ensure social distancing because it can help in smoothening out peak or rush hours,” he pointed out.

In road transport, the transport agency said 1-2 passengers will be added in each vehicle at 0.75-meter distancing rules. This, in turn, will allow jeepneys to operate at 17% of their capacity in normal times. 

“This is an IATF-approved policy already. IATF is a collegial body. DOTr and DOH are both members of the IATF. All concerns should be discussed in the IATF. That is where they balance the sectors and issues,” Libiran said. 

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